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A Conversation with Truman Rucker

Say the name “Collinsville” and many church members of a certain age will know exactly what is being discussed. “Collinsville” refers to the Collinsville, Okla., church which was the defandent in a lawsuit in 1984 brought by Marian Guinn, a church member who was disfellowshiped by the congregation in this small town northeast of Tulsa.
As Rucker explains in this Dialogue, the case received widespread attention in the national press. Guinn was often portrayed as the victim of an intolerant and backward religious body. The situation that brought Collinsville into being occurred in 1982. The case came to trial in March 1984 — 20 years from next month.
“Collinsville” has come to mean much more than the events of 20 years ago. It has come to convey the way churches approach, or in many cases, avoid, church discipline.
Rucker, a member and elder of the Jenks, Okla., Church of Christ, has practiced law for 25 years. He is now Of Counsel with the firm Wilson, Cain and Acquaviva in Tulsa and Oklahoma City.
He conducts numerous mediations and arbitrations and serves as Adjunct Settlement Judge for Tulsa County.
He and his wife, Kaye, have three children.
How did you become the attorney representing the congregation in the Collinsville vs. Marian Guinn lawsuit?

I am a trial lawyer, and I had a relationship with two of the elders at the Collinsville church. Collinsville had no liability insurance to cover its defense. Also, this was a “David vs. Goliath” case with a passionate cause.

What did you see as the case’s broader implications or issues?

The principal issue in this case was the right of free speech, the right of an organization or group to address in a semi-public manner the conduct and actions of a member or former member of the group, and whether and what could be “publicized” about the member to the group. Because the organization was a church, the right of religious groups to be free from interference by courts in activities of the church, specifically disciplinary action, became the primary focus of the litigation. The plaintiff wanted to enforce her perceived “right of privacy” and end the right of the group to have contact with her or make any announcements about its withdrawal of fellowship from her.
What were your career and church positions at that time?
I was a partner in a small law firm in Tulsa. I was serving as a deacon for a small congregation in Tulsa.
Can you briefly recap your view of what transpired that brought the case into being?

Marian Guinn was a single mother of three children and was in need of help. The church befriended and helped her, providing physical, emotional, spiritual and financial assistance while she attended and graduated from nursing school. Guinn’s attendance waned, and she became involved in a relationship with a prominent person in the town of Collinsville. The elders counseled with her about this relationship. At the last meeting with the elders about the situation, Marian Guinn told them that she was withdrawing her membership from the church.
The elders subsequently informed the adult members of the congregation that the church was to withdraw fellowship from Marian Guinn and gave the scriptural reasons for doing so. Marian Guinn then filed her lawsuit, alleging that she was abusively treated and that her privacy had been violated.
The Collinsville case was about the legal right of a church to express its care and concern for one of its member to whom it had given its heart.
The Collinsville church had literally pulled Marian Guinn out of the grasp of the world, had brought her into the light of God’s grace and given her the opportunity to enjoy the blessings of a righteous life.
When Marian Guinn again chose the draw of the world, the church sought after her as a parent would their child. Its final and ultimate act of love was its withdrawal of fellowship.
What can you tell us of the media coverage the case received?
At the time the case came to trial in March 1984, local and national media were notified and picked up the storyline of a single mother who was mistreated and violated by narrow-minded and intolerant church leaders. The national news media had reporters and sketch-artists at the trial. The trial was moved to the largest courtroom in the Tulsa County courthouse. The courtroom was packed by church members, media and interested people. Media including ABC’s Nightline requested and were denied interviews.
How did other Churches of Christ react to the case?

Churches of Christ were incredibly supportive of the Collinsville church and elders. James O. Baird and others developed a group who led the charge to raise funds and provide guidance. In excess of $1 million was donated within a short time to assist the Collinsville church.
The case’s first stage was a jury trial conducted in March 1984. What can you tell us about that proceeding?
The core issue at the trial level was the right of the court to exercise jurisdiction over the religious actions of the church and its elders. The jury brought back three separate verdicts against each of the elders and the church for actual and punitive damages. All three judgments totaled the sum of $827,000, which the jury believed it had awarded the plaintiff. However, because damages were the same for each verdict, she was only entitled to the largest verdict, $390,000.
The judge and jury had an obvious inability to understand the motives of the church in its actions. They disregarded the spiritual aspects of the case and viewed it in a purely secular manner, much as if the church had simply been a fraternity or social club.
What happened when the case was appealed to the Oklahoma Supreme Court?
The appeal took approximately three years for a ruling. There were numerous grounds for appeal with the primary ones being constitutional: jurisdiction, right of free speech and right of religious association. Some verdicts were reversed in favor of the Collinsville church; some were remanded for a new trial.
The defendants were in the process of filing an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court when the case resolved.
How did the Collinsville church pay the fees and awards?

No judgment or award was paid by the Collinsville church from the fund established by donations. The resolution included a condition that the terms of the resolution be kept confidential. Some of the balance of the fund was refunded to donating churches.

Now, 20 years later, can you speak to the effect the case has had on the church and on church discipline?

This case was about the right of a religious group to exercise its right of association and disassociation through its conduct and speech without government interference, about the rights of a group being greater than the rights of an individual. It was about a plaintiff who used the tools of the world to afflict the church. And it was about a court imposing the laws of the world into spiritual issues.
The publicity of the case had a chilling effect on churches, not just Churches of Christ. In my counsel and contact with churches, it was obvious that much concern has been put into the decision whether to follow the example of the Collinsville church, and possibly suffer its fate, or to take a step back from discipline in dealing with members. I have often been asked to describe the limits of legally allowable discipline.
I believe the practice of withdrawal of fellowship significantly decreased after the case. This is unfortunate because all that the Collinsville church and elders did with regard to Marian Guinn was consistent with their rights under the U. S. Constitution.
I have always been confident an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court would have resolved all issues in favor of defendants. Most importantly, although some have questioned the wisdom of the elders to proceed with withdrawal of fellowship in light of the threatened litigation, the hearts and motives of the elders were beyond question.
From a 20-year vantage point, are you glad you took the case?
Absolutely! This type of case comes along once, if at all, in the life of an attorney. My father, a nationally respected attorney for 49 years, probably never had a case that received such publicity.
The opportunity to work on such compelling and unique constitutional issues from the beginning to conclusion is rare.
The occasion to fight for the underdog, to represent honest and principled clients in such a noble cause against the great weight of public thought was an extraordinary opportunity.

Filed under: Dialogue

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